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Sacred Masculine - Interlude

Interlude: “Why Iron John Is No Gift to Women” by Jill Johnston. (image: By The New York Time's obituary for Johnston, Fair use,

My first reaction to this 1992 review essay was “Well, I hadn’t expected Iron John to be a gift for women anyway.” Interesting. Shouldn't it be, with women as half of 'community'? Are pieces written for women, or for men, most healthy when they serve the community as a whole? I’d hope YES. And further: who and how do “we” decide what is best for the whole, particularly amidst so many fractured ‘wholes’ within any larger Whole? But then people write what is in them to write, often without much conscious reflection on any of these questions.

Jill Johnston (1929-2010) was an interesting choice to write a NYTimes review of Robert Bly’s book, particularly if you look at her Wikipedia page. She was “described by one critic as "part Gertrude Stein, part E. E. Cummings, with a dash of Jack Kerouac thrown for good measure." Bly’s book was foreordained to get polarized and polarizing treatment from her, which would of course sell more newspapers. She was a political feminist writer, intent upon the transformation of society toward one where men are “initiated into primary parenting and real domestic responsibility, as well as the world,” and women “have the onus of total parental obligation lifted” while they are “afforded a complete set of keys for admission to the world.” (Her concluding words in the review, ironically shaped in largely 'motherhood' terms).

All that said, I found much that is liberating and provocative for my sacred-masculine pursuits within her review. Only one item for this space, her focal critique of “Bly’s leitmotif of male initiation as the exclusion of women.” Initiation catches my heart and eye these days. A healthy sacred masculine is one to be newly initiated, in my view, given past and present traditions, institutions.

Johnston writes, “Male initiation always has to do with gender distinctions and the devaluation of women.” Dissonance arose here, because I’m not sure gender distinctions necessarily coalesce with the devaluation of women. But maybe they do. Maybe the distinction of gender creates devaluation? …in which case we need to re-learn communal cohesion thinking-practices shaped by communal needs more than gender norming. How do we discern communal need(s) freed of gender?

Then Johnston writes, “Bly’s whole initiation structure is based on an old concept of the mother…” I see what she’s saying, within her cultural era, setting. She is noting all the ways Bly’s work retains traditional assumptions and patriarchal shape(s). It’s valuable to see how right she is here. But coming from an ancient African Dagara perspective, seen through the eyes of an elder-friend in Fire&Water? Initiation in that setting has a much more cosmic, communally cohesive sensibility, with little reference to any “old concept of the mother.” Or does it? Her conviction is men initiate men, women initiate women...but assumed within a strong collectivist culture. Which ours is not...

I’m left wondering…Is any ‘sacred masculine’ musing already an implicitly-patriarchal separatist pursuit? What would initiation of human beings into full selves require of the community that knows its need(s)?

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